Giving Britain’s armed forces the technological edge

Stephen Harris

Entering BAE Systems’ Advanced Technology Centre wasn’t quite as exciting as I was expecting. Instead of having my retinas scanned and then being escorted underground to a steel vault by robot guards, I was ticked off a list and shown into a large brick garage.

Most of the gadgets didn’t look as sexy as I’d hoped either. When I heard ‘liquid armour’ I pictured something akin to the T-1000 in Terminator 2. At the words ‘vehicle cloaking’, I imagined I’d see, well, I imagined not being able to see anything at all.

Of course, the reality was much less like science fiction, and the day was as frustrating as it was fascinating, with BAE often unwilling to explain how the technology worked in detail. But the hours of work behind the devices were always apparent and the results impressive.

One of the most interesting technologies revealed was a device for acoustically sending data and power through several inches of solid steel.

A submarine typically has around 300 holes drilled in its hull in order to connect external sensors. Not only does this compromise the structure’s integrity but it can cost around £80m over the sub’s lifetime to create and maintain these holes.

Using very high modulating frequencies, BAE’s ‘through-hull data link’ is able to transmit power to the sensors and receive information back without the need for any holes. Of course attaching the sensor to the outside of the ship then becomes more difficult but at least it doesn’t create any possibilities of leaks.

The device could also be used for land vehicles or in nuclear reactors. It also transmits through aluminium and glass but not composite materials that scatter the acoustics.

BAE’s other big communications technology was a way for military convoys to send real-time video footage to each other without fear of it being intercepted. Vehicles in the desert often throw up so much dust that only the lead truck can see anything, so using a camera to film the path ahead and sending the footage to the other cars allows them to know what’s coming up.

By using a high frequency of 60Ghz, vehicles can transmit up to 4GB per second of HD video data that can only be received within 60m because such high frequency transmissions are easily absorbed by the air. As well as making interception difficult, it also means that multiple units within a local area can use the same frequency without the signals crossing over.

Not all the gadgets BAE was keen to show me were as cutting edge, although they were usually just as exciting. For example, the ‘liquid armour’ it is trialling was first used by the US military a few years ago,

Rather than being a form of armour on its own, this shear thickening fluid is added to Kevlar to help absorb the impact of bullets. Ten layers of liquid-infused Kevlar are more effective than 31 untreated layers, but are roughly 45 per cent lighter and thinner.

A shear thickening fluid is one that becomes more viscous under stress, as its molecules are forced together and form stronger chemical bonds. They’re also known as dilatants and are examples of non-Newtonian fluids. BAE wouldn’t say exactly what their liquid was, apart from saying it wasn’t a polymer, but the US used polyethylene glycol with added silica nano-particles.

Similarly, its ‘cloaking device’ and autonomous vehicle systems are good examples of how the firm is using existing ideas in new ways, rather than breakthrough technologies.

Although tight-lipped on the technical details, BAE did explain that its stealth overcoat for vehicles added protection from radar and thermal detection to visual camouflage – the first time all three forms of disguising technology have been used together.

And when it came to the self-driving vehicles, BAE admitted that while its competitors probably have similar units, its technology stands out because it can easily be applied to a range of vehicles. For example, it took them just four weeks to fit out a Land Rover with an autonomous system.

While the UK’s defence industry may not yet be ready to make battle missions look like scenes from a science fiction film, the imagination and ingenuity of its engineers are helping give British troops the technological edge.

With the strategic defence review just around the corner, should Britain continue to invest in niche defence technologies or simply concern itself with current operational requirements? Let us know what you think.